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American presidents and the Dutch words they learnt in the Netherlands

By Ruud Hisgen (Direct Dutch Institute) for I am Expat 

We recommends speaking Dutch as often as possible – even if all your Dutch colleagues speak English, and even if you only know a few words of Dutch. Ruud Hisgen pays tribute to two famous American presidents who managed to pick up a little Dutch during their visits to the Netherlands.

John Adams: Liefhebberij (hobby horse)



Before he became the second POTUS in 1797, John Adams (1735-1826) was America’s first Ambassador in Holland from 1782 until 1788.

While in The Hague, he received a loan from the Dutch, which was the seed money for the American revolution (1765-1783). On April 19, 1782, Adams bought a house on Fluwelen Burgwal 18 in The Hague. This house, now the location of a parking garage, was the first American embassy in the world.

Adams liked the country. At an earlier visit to the Netherlands in 1780, Adams wrote to his wife Abigail:

“The country where I am is the greatest curiosity in the world. This nation is not known anywhere, not even by its neighbours. The Dutch language is spoken by none but themselves. Therefore they converse with nobody and nobody converses with them.

The English are a great nation, and they despise the Dutch because they are smaller. The French are a greater Nation still, and therefore they despise the Dutch because they are still smaller in comparison to them.

But I doubt much whether there is any nation of Europe more estimable than the Dutch, in proportion. Their industry and economy ought to be examples to the world.

They have less ambition, I mean that of conquest and military glory, than their Neighbours, but I don’t perceive that they have more avarice. And they carry learning and arts I think to greater extent. The collections of curiosities public and private are innumerable.”

[Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 15 September 1780, Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society]

Hobby horse


Apparently, Adams was extremely fond of these “rariteitenkabinetten” (collections of curiosities), which were the precursor of the museum.

The 20th-century editor of his diaries describes Adams as having “a roving absorbed mind that responded to stimuli from any quarter of the intellectual world”.

In 1782, when he was in The Hague, Adams wrote to his wife about his love for these passionate “liefhebberijen” (pastimes, pursuits, interests):

“In this country… men are much addicted to “hobby horses”. These nags are called in the language of the Dutch “liefhebberij”… I had rather ride a Dutch hobby horse than an English one or a French. It is the wholesomest exercise in the World. They live to great ages by the strength of it.”

Barack Obama: Gezellig (cosy)



After the previous POTUS, Barack Obama, visited The Hague for the Nuclear Security Summit in March 2014, he thanked the Dutch people, Prime Minister Mark Rutte and King Willem-Alexander for their remarkable hospitality and the flawless organisation and said: “I’m told there’s a Dutch word that captures this spirit, which doesn’t translate exactly into English. But let me say that my first visit to the Netherlands has been truly gezellig.”


The word “gezellig”, as Obama pointed out himself, can’t really be translated into English. If you try, you would probably choose a word like “cosy” or “intimate”.

But can you imagine a summit about nuclear terrorism being cosy and intimate? A city trip with family and friends might be intimate and cosy. But a presidential trip is more like a military operation. Maybe a trip to a small and cosy country like ours is “gezellig”.

Mark and Barack

Obama did seem calm and relaxed during his visit and he even called our Prime Minister Mark Rutte “Mark”. The word “gezellig” comes from the old Dutch word “gezel” which means “companion”.

So, “gezellig” means being amongst companions, mates; people you like to be with. Calling his visit “gezellig” means that Obama must have felt amongst friends. The feeling was mutual, that’s for sure.